A Blackout Tavern Study in 1960s Folklore
by Pat O'Connor
[Originally published in Midwestern Folklore, Spring 1997, and modified for use as first chapter in Tales From A Blackout, Rowfant Press, 1997, by Patrick Joseph O'Connor.]
The purpose of this collection of interviews is to delineate how the folk group of Blackout customers used expressive behavior to separate themselves from society at large. A Blackout Tavern, a college bar that went from folk singers to hippies, provided a community of and venue for social change. Throughout the transcripts of these tradition bearers is found the "Humane Impulse," first catalogued by Richard Dorson (6).
A Blackout Tavern in 1968; photograph by Tom Bevan.
This cycling, subcultural apparatus, while sustaining the tavern's community, also drew those of widely disparate political and cultural views, putting a face on the antagonist, and allowing a semblance of understanding and a guarded acceptance of alternate moralities. As in Bell's findings in his work at Brown's Lounge, a location (again a tavern) is a legitimate arena for folklore studies.
Given the extremism of the era, such havens for folk groups were instrumental in providing the continuity and cohesion necessary to achieve social change, no matter the initial small scale. As will be seen from the interviews, such vanguard acts as integration, communal drug use, flexible gender style of dress and appearance, and non-nationalistic behavior became news, thus influencing others.
Dorson found that "the vital folklore and the legends of a given period in American history reflect the [period's] main concerns and values...." (xiv). The concepts of folklore research may be used to experience the meaning of the Movement. As Alan Dundes writes, "the term 'folk' can refer to any group of people...[with] some traditions which it calls its own" (7). The participants in the 1960s underground were quick to begin their "autobiographical ethnography" (Dundes 13), relying to some extent on Native American traditions (passing the pipe in a circle, thinking of themselves as belonging to different tribes, and other borrowings of dress and artwork), on American legends (dressing in coonskin caps and buckskin, fastening on the underdog associations of earlier folk heroes), and esteeming the rural processes over the urban.
The costumes, stories, and decor chosen by these rebellious youth became traditions that gave the group "a sense of identity" (Dundes 7). The folklore of the 1960s, through traditional selection, has filtered through to current times in styles of music, art, and dress, and in environmental awareness and cultural relativity.
The altruism and regenerative impulse that swept the nation relied heavily on all of the folklore genres--myth, legend, tale, proverb and ballad; and even the riddle is evident, in the lyrics of Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind."
How many roads must a man walk down
The following interviews, whether entirely factual or not, are a part of the workable material of folklore. They involve selected traditions in the making as the participants look back on their youthful days and recall events that colored that time. The counterculture of youth was separated from the majority culture and gladly came to their own myths, legends, and ballads. This will be demonstrated below. As Dorson recounted the Owsley legend, comparing the LSD manufacturer with Barney Beal, the Maine lobsterman (283), so does one of the interviewees tell of the drug dealers in A Blackout outwitting law enforcement.
Another informant tells of one pipe full of marijuana that intoxicated a roomful of people at a party, in correlation to the marchen of the renewing bread basket or ever-filling purse. The anecdotal or personal legends that the participants convey have to do with A Blackout Tavern, thus forming a correlation with the category of local or place legends (Dorson 291). The geographical location is a focal point, the purpose of which changed over the fifty-year life of the building to meet the needs of the neighborhood culture and then those of the counterculture.
Current site of A Blackout, showing the tortured elm that grew next to the entry and that defied the weight of several patrons over the years. Photograph by Pat O'Connor, c. 2004.